Tag: patriotism

Cather, “The Namesake” (1907)

Illustration for Willa Cather’s “The Namesake” in McClure’s Magazine, 1907, by American artist Ernest L. Blumenschein (1874–1960). (Willa Cather Archive)

Illustration for Willa Cather’s “The Namesake” in McClure’s Magazine, 1907, by American artist Ernest L. Blumenschein (1874–1960). (Willa Cather Archive). The Library of America used the illustration for its Story of the Week in November 2017.

Between Wharton’s “Coming Home,” Faulkner’s “Two Soldiers” and now Cather’s “The Namesake,” we’ve been on a run of patriotic stories on speed, each one about a different war. Cather wrote this one in 1907, well before World War I, well after the Civil War, setting it in a bohemian Paris I don’t think she ever knew, which hints at the superficiality of the setting: too many efforts to point out that “the sycamores were almost bare in the Luxembourg Gardens” and how “wonderful little bonnets nodded at one along the Champs-Elysées. At first you’re not sure whether the story is an elegy to the artist’s life in Europe or a love letter to American courage and longing for the old country (in this case, America). It’s about Lyon Hartwell, an Italy-born American son of a sculptor who left the United States to become in Italy the artist he never could be, before imploring his son to try to make up for his failure. Hartwell becomes a sculptor. The scene in Paris focuses on seven artists who frequently gather at Hartwell’s studio, though this time they’re doing so because Hartwell’s roommate is leaving to return to the United States. There’s melancholy all around. It is the cause of a reminiscence by Hartwell, of his namesake, his uncle who was a pennant bearer during the Civil Wart, and who displayed courage and enthusiasm for the fight in equal parts, bearing the flag even after having one of his arms chopped off by a shell. Hartwell discovers the uncle’s history on a trip to the United States, where he’d gone to care for his grandfather’s invalid sister for two years. In a trunk he discovers the history of his uncle, and in the memory he discovers the power to sculpt him:  “Color Sergeant.”

“It was the portrait of a very handsome lad in uniform, standing beside a charger impossibly rearing. Not only in his radiant countenance and flashing eyes, but in every line of his young body there was an energy, a gallantry, a joy of life, that arrested and challenged one.” The connection between the uncle and his father is chiseled in the work: “”There is a good deal of my father in the face, but it is my father transformed and glorified; his hesitating discontent drowned in a kind of triumph. From my first day in that house, I continually turned to this handsome kinsman of mine, wondering in what terms he had lived and had his hope; what he had found there to look like that, to bound at one, after all those years, so joyously out of the canvas.”

Cather pushes the lyricism to the edge of cliché, a weakness of hers I’ve found in many of her novels. It doesn’t come naturally to her. There’s more of the repertorial than artistic description in those passages. Here she uses Hartwell’s discovery to illuminate the artistic process, a process strangely, a bit distastefully rooted in an exile’s patriotism (the word race connoting something then that may not have been as entirely revolting as its connotation now, but not entirely innocent of revulsion either: it was the age of Spencer and Holmes: “The experience of that night, coming so overwhelmingly to a man so dead, almost rent me in pieces. It was the same feeling that artists know when we, rarely, achieve truth in our work; the feeling of union with some great force, of purpose and security, of being glad that we have lived. For the first time I felt the pull of race and blood and kindred, and felt beating within me things that had not begun with me.”

McClure, March 1907

Faulkner, “Two Soldiers” (1942)

The Anguish of Departure: Giorgio de Chirico, 1914 (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo)

The Anguish of Departure: Giorgio de Chirico, 1914 (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo)

A story despised by critics, beloved by Faulkner. “I like, it” he wrote, ” it because it portrays a type which I admire—not only a little boy, and I think little boys are all right, but a true American: an independent creature with courage and bottom and heart—a creature which is not vanishing, even though every articulate medium we have—radio, moving pictures, magazines—is busy day and night telling us that it has vanished, has become a sentimental and bragging liar.” I like it because very few stories make me cry. This one did. The relationship between the two brothers is all.

Pete is 18 or 19. The younger boy is not named. They’re in the habit of listening to the radio outside a deaf woman’s house at night. They hear about Pear Harbor. Pete understands. The younger boy doesn’t. Pete is restless until he decides to enlist. His mother is shattered but won’t stop him. His brother doesn’t yet know how shattered he’ll be. Pete takes the bus for Memphis. The next day, his brother finds ways to follow him. The trip is hilarious. The boy’s interactions with the bus driver, with the Law, with soldiers: critics may have seen it all as stereotypical and demeaning. But the humor is never crass. It’s moving, as almost everyone indulges the young boy. Pete hasn’t left for Little Rock yet. He shows up at the recruiting station. His brother pleads. “I got to go too. I got to. It hurts my heart, Pete.” Maybe that’s the line critics disliked so much. It made me cry actual tears. Pete lectures his brother about doing his part–he doesn’t say so, but he’s telling him to be a soldier on the home front, hence the title of the story. The boy returns home.

There’s a whiff of the war-office propaganda reel about it, a Sgt. York shucksiness that defines each boy in his way. But it’s in the distance, or maybe it’s the reader’s contrivance becase we’re not supposed to be so taken by a story that, in Spielberg’s hands, would have had us flooding the theater in tears.

Saturday Evening Post, March 28, 1942